Sunday, November 11, 2018

Is It Worth It: The Audible Romance Package

As someone who lives in L.A. and commutes about 2 hours round trip every day, I love a good audiobook. Since I spend so much time at work/driving to work, sometimes reading an audiobook is the only way I can get my reading in. As an audiobook lover, I of course have an Audible subscription (plus: shoutout to Libby for free audiobooks from the library!!!) and have heard tales of the famed Romance Package that Audible recently introduced. At the basic level, an Audible subscription, which is like $14, includes one free book a month and a discount on the library of audiobooks. The advantage of this service is that, if a book is on audio, it is usually on Audible. Although I love Libby, it is limited to whatever titles a library owns, and some popular titles have enormous waitlists, so I usually read new releases and popular titles on Audible. There are also so Audible-exclusive podcasts that I haven't listened to much, but they seem to be good quality and address a range of interests.

So that's the basics of Audible-- now, you may ask, what is the Romance Package??? For an extra $6.95 a month, subscribers get access to a huge selection of romance titles that are categorized in really user friendly ways. You can browse by Romance Category (historical, urban fantasy, etc.), Character Types (viscounts, vampires, etc.), Story Themes (pick your trope catnip), and, ahem, Steaminess (self-explanatory, right?). Disclaimer: not every romance title available on Audible is part of the package. Nonetheless, there are a ton of options and, get this, you can listen to unlimited titles within the package. Say what??? Romance readers have put other subscription services out of business, so I have no idea how Audible is making this happen but I'm not one to question a good thing. Still, paying for an extra service can be annoying so I decided to do the one month free trial to see if it's worth it. Here's what I've found out.

Navigating the Romance Package
At first glance, it seems like there aren't that many books that are part of the package, especially through the Audible app. However, there are a ton of books available and you just have to dig a little to find them. I think browsing the website version is a little easier than the app version, or even just searching authors I like, sometimes I'm surprised to find that they have books that I can listen to as part of the subscription. Sometimes entire series are available, or almost every book except one or two is part of the package. So if at first it seems like there aren't a lot of choices, don't be discouraged. This isn't one of those situations where only the books that you wouldn't read anyway are available for free, there are actually solid titles to borrow. Admittedly, you do have to do some searching to find titles if you don't have a specific one in mind, as the curated lists aren't very long. This is kind of a draw-back, but there are literally thousands of choices so I can see why they can't all fit on a list.

Romance Nerd Features
I love that the website seems to have been put together with a true romance nerd in mind! You can search by trope, by steaminess, and more; I personally love a friends to lovers romance or (even better) a fake relationship, and I love that I can search for books this way. The designers who put together the content really did their research into what romance readers are looking for when it comes to browsing books.

Recommended Romance Package Titles

The Kiss Quotient by Helen Hoang; narrated by Carly Robins

One of my favorite reads of 2018, The Kiss Quotient is a must-listen available through the Romance Package. Data-minded math whiz Stella Lane loves her work but is ready to take the next step in her personal life: practice romance until she's competent enough to ask out her co-worker, who seems like a logical choice. Stella's Asberger's has always gotten in the way of her past relationships, so she figures hiring a professional - a male escort - will help her sort out some of her hang-ups with making out and sex. Turns out, her male escort is super hot, super patient Michael Phan, and her carefully laid plans are turned upside down. I loved the relationship between Stella and Michael, but also Michael's big family and learning about his troubled past. This book was equal parts funny and romantic. The steaminess level is rated Hot Damn and I found the narration to be well-acted and engaging.

The Heiress Effect by Courtney Milan; narrated by Rosalyn Landor

To be honest, I recommend this entire series and lucky for you it's all available in the Romance Package, but this just happens to be my favorite in the series. Miss Jane Fairfield wears what society views to be unfortunate gowns (they sound kind of awesome) and always says embarrassing things, and hopes to avoid marriage at all costs to protect her sister. The hero, Mr. Oliver Marshall, is a bastard who must maintain a facade of perfect despite his inner disdain for the social injustices in English society. When they come together, they are both flawed but also they are the first people to really see each other in a long time. I love their story, and the narrator does an excellent job with the humor of Milan's writing. Rated as Sizzling.

Poison Study by Maria V. Snyder; narrated by Gabra Zackman

If fantasy romance is more your thing and you're like me and are 10 years behind reading books on your TBR, I recommend the Study series starting with Poison Study. Most of the series is available through the Romance Package as well. In the first book of the series, Yelena, a prisoner, is offered an exchange of her death sentence for a new death sentence, that of a poison taster for the Commander of Ixia. Set in a land where everyone has a role, a uniform, and a part to play in society, and where magic is outlawed, Yelena learns the art of poison tasting from Valek, an infamous assassin, and becomes entangled in political plots, confronts an old enemy, and has a little time for romance in between. I liked Gabra Zackman's narration, especially how she differentiated each characters voices.

So . . . is it worth it?
If you're a hardcore romance reader, definitely, yes. For me, whenever a book I'm waiting on from the library isn't available or if I just want a quick read without spending hours agonizing over my TBR, having the option to just see what's new in the Romance Package and start a new book is really convenient. As far as the costs, I think if you are are a regular reader of audiobooks and you already subscribe to Audible, it's worth it. With the regular membership, you only get one free book a month and this package is half the price but you get way more free books so to me it's a win. I don't see myself canceling my subscription anytime soon. So if you're on the fence but you find yourself buying romance audiobooks beyond your free credits, I would recommend this add-on.

Happy reading (and listening)!

Friday, August 24, 2018

Must-Read Asian YA!!!

Finally, it's cool to be Asian! I have been living for Asian August with the release of Crazy Rich Asians (go see it in the theatre ASAP), the Netflix debut of To All the Boys I've Loved Before, and the new John Cho film, Searching. It was so satisfying to go to the theatre opening night to see Crazy Rich Asians and see a film full of Asian and Asian-American leads, and then I spent the weekend vegging out and watching To All the Boys I've Loved Before. To be honest, To All the Boys I've Loved Before is the series that got me into reading YA. So I figure, while everyone is here enjoying some Asian awesomeness, I'd put together a list of some of my favorite YA books by Asian & Asian-American authors that I would consider absolute must-reads. Let's do this!

Emergency Contact by Mary H.K. Choi

Let's start with my favorite YA book I read this year; Emergency Contact really has it all when it comes to what I love about YA contemporaries. There's a relatable, awkward main character in Penny, whose anxiety impacts all aspects of her life, and a unique friendship that she builds with Sam, who is doing his best to recover from a background of trauma and alcohol abuse. The way that their relationship builds throughout the story of Penny's freshman year of college feels so real and I loved watching their characters develop. There are also moments of micro-aggressions that I definitely related to as an Asian woman, and, despite some heavy topics, Choi's humor still shines throughout the book. If you're going through what Penny is, you'll be able to identify and also if you are just revisiting those awkward, uncertain years of early adulthood, you'll be able to connect.

The Way You Make Me Feel &

I Believe in a Thing Called Love by Maurene Goo
Ahhh I loved both of these books! Again, these are YA contemporaries (sorry, that's kind of my jam) featuring Asian-American protagonists. In I Believe in a Thing Called Love, over-achiever Desi Lee is awesome at everything, except dating. Naturally, she decides to follow the examples of leading ladies from the K-dramas that she watches with her dad (their relationship is adorable) in order to score a boyfriend and check off that high school experience from her list before she goes off to college. Things get a bit complicated as actual feelings arise and Desi ends up doing completely insane things (driven by a bit of neuroses), but overall grows throughout the book and is hilarious the entire time. 

Meanwhile, in The Way You Make Me Feel, the heroine, Clara, is anything but an over-achiever. Instead, the book starts off with her being suspended from school for a prank that goes to far. The sentence ends up being spending her entire summer working on her dad's food truck (Korean-Brazilian fusion, which sounds delicious) with her arch-nemesis. Clara comes off as completely obnoxious, but her growth throughout the story is amazing. Through it all, she learns who she really is and how to make sense of her atypical family structure. In typical Maurene Goo fashion, this book will also make you laugh out loud throughout. 

See You in the Cosmos by Jack Cheng

Okay, so technically this is a middle grade book but I have to include it because it's one of my favorites! Author Jack Cheng is from Shanghai but grew up in the states and lives in Detroit, and the character he created in Alex Petroski is one that will stick with you long after you finish this book. 11-year-old Alex, who is half-Filipino, is obsessed with Cosmos (he has a dog named Carl Sagan) and his goal is to launch a rocket at an amateur rocket building meet-up and to send his Golden iPod into space. 

Alex's humor and sweetness will definitely win over any reader, but there are lots of moments of real emotion throughout the book. Alex knows his mom has dark days, and thinks it's his job to take care of her, in what I think is a very thoughtful exploration of mental illness. Throughout Alex's journey with Carl Sagan at his side, he reconnects with his old brother, uncovers secrets about his deceased father, and tries to find his place in the universe. I highly recommend this book to everyone, even if you don't usually read middle grade.

American Panda by Gloria Chao

Don't hate me but this is another contemporary! It's so good though that I have to recommend it; American Panda, a debut from a dentist turned writer, follows ultra-smart Mei, whose Taiwanese parents are carving out a path for her to become a doctor and continue their legacy. Mei, however, hates germs and freaks out at the sight of blood, indicating that, although she has been admitted early to MIT, becoming a doctor may not be the profession for her. Instead, Mei loves dance and envisions herself dancing and teaching dance full-time. While this would be enough to drive her mother insane, Mei also meets a love interest who is Japanese; Mei's older brother has already been cast out of the family for dating someone the family didn't approve of, and Mei is terrified the same thing will happen to her.

Although this book deals with some harsh realities, Chao handles Mei's story with such humor and candidness that it ends up being a feel-good read. Mei's journey in her first year of college and the growth she undergoes, as well as the growing relationship with her parents and reconciling Taiwanese traditions with a Western life, make this an awesome read.

Warcross by Marie Lu

Hey look it's not a contemporary realistic fiction! Warcross, by powerhouse author Marie Lu, instead follows gamer extraordinaire and sometimes bounty hunter, Emika Chen, whose skills attract the attention the reclusive creator of Warcross, the biggest virtual reality game on the planet. Billionare game tycoon Hideo Tanaka whisks Emika from her life of poverty in New York to bring her to Tokyo and compete in the Warcross Championship, and utilize her skills to uncover a spy within his midst. 

The world-building in this book is incredible, and Lu's settings and tech systems really transport the reader to Emika's world. I also appreciate that the gaming tycoon is Japanese, the game actually seems fun, and the world is super futuristic yet imaginable, unlike some other imagined gaming universes (cough, Ready Player One, cough). Emika is an awesome heroine and there enough twists in this book to keep you reading. Plus, the second book, Wildcard comes out this fall so you'll definitely want to pick this up soon so you can keep going with the series.

The Epic Crush of Genie Lo by F.C. Yee

Have you ever wanted to read a version of Buffy the Vampire Slayer featuring Chinese demons and mythology and an Asian-American heroine who has the Monkey King as a side-kick and doesn't contain nearly as much problematic content? Then you should definitely check out The Epic Crush of Genie Lo, a book in which Genie, a smart, capable teen, realizes there's a reason she's bigger and stronger than everyone else she meets, and her destiny is to fight demons and kick ass. Meanwhile, Quentin Sun, a trickster who seems to be hiding something from her, is a sort of a guide throughout her bizarre journey.

This book has a lot of tongue-in-cheek humor, nicely incorporates aspects of Chinese mythology, and has a strong heroine who is still easy to relate to. Plus, according to Goodreads there is a sequel in the future (fingers-crossed) to continue the adventures of this awesome, demon-crushing teen.

A Thousand Beginnings and Endings compiled by Ellen Oh and Elsie Chapman

If you've ever wanted to read a collection of myths and legends written by some of the best and brightest Sci-Fi/Fantasy writers like Alyssa Wong, Roshani Chokshi, Julie Kagawa, and more, then A Thousand Beginnings and Endings is definitely required reading. Each writer takes on a traditional myth or legend selected from cultures throughout East and South Asia. There's a good range of historical fantasy, contemporary settings, and the collection incorporates a variety of writing styles. Although not every story is a five-star read, there is definitely something for every reader in this collection, and it's awesome to have a collection of stories inspired by myths that are usually overlooked by mainstream publishing, like stories based on Hmong legends or Punjabi myths.

Okay, but what else is coming out....

Now for a few of the upcoming 2019 releases that are generating some buzz! One I'm super excited to hear more about is Gumiho, a debut by Kat Cho, that will be a YA urban fantasy set in modern-day Seoul and featuring Korean mythology. Um, yes please. There's also Ruse, a new edition to Cindy Pon's Want series, which takes place in a futuristic Shanghai, slated to be released in March of 2019. I'm also really excited for the release of The Tiger at Midnight, which draws on Indian legends and Hindu mythology and features an assassin heroine. According to Goodreads, it's also slated for a Spring 2019 release. Pardon me while I stalk NetGalley hoping that it pops up.

These are just a few of the books that have me so thrilled to see what other awesome Asian authors and Asian characters we get to read about and hopefully also see adapted into films! And the list of recommendations is like just scratching the surface of Asian representation in YA so if you need more reading ideas or have any to suggest, leave a comment below! 

Happy reading! 

Friday, May 4, 2018

Review: No One But You by Brenda Novak

Title: No One But You
Author: Brenda Novak
Genre: Contemporary Romance
Release Date: June 2017
RITA Category: Contemporary Romance - Long
Rating: 3.5/5 Stars

Okay, so you see that sweet-looking cover with the rain boots and the lavender and the cute font and the blurb from Debbie Macomber? Doesn't that make you think this will be a feel-good, small-town romance? Well. You're in for a bit of a surprise. I know I definitely was, because this book centers around spousal abuse, stalking, and a murder. I typically do not read summaries of books before I read them, so needless to say I was a little shocked when I started this one and the first chapter is describing the heroine going to an apparent murder house for a job interview so that she can support herself and finally escape her loveless marriage to a man who emotionally abuses her. No One But You is kind of like the most bananas Lifetime movie in book form but to be honest I enjoyed it and all of the out-of-control drama.

In No One But You, Sadie is doing everything she can to make a new life for her and her young son, Jayden, in an attempt to finally move on from a marriage to a man she no longer loves and whom she is growing to fear. The man in question is Sly (yes his name is really Sly), who is a local cop who abuses his power in order to keep Sadie under his thumb and convince the townspeople of Silver Springs that he's a stand-up guy. He does everything he can to assert his dominance over Sadie and shows almost no love to his son Jayden; in short, he's the literal worst. Meanwhile, Sadie is so desperate for her own money that she decides to apply for a job posted by the town Boo Radley, Dawson Reed, who like a year before was acquitted for the murder of his adoptive parents, who owned a farm in Silver Springs. Although innocent, the entire town thinks he's guilty anyway (fyi I hate all these townspeople) and everyone thinks Sadie is better off with her abusive ex (who they don't believe is abusive because enablers) than working for Dawson.

Warning: once you start reading you won't be able to stop if only to see how this bananas book ends
Except...Dawson is super hot! And he just wants to take care of his mentally disabled adoptive sister! And he actually likes Jayden! Unsure of who to believe, Sadie decides to have an open mind and get to know Dawson while helping him get his farm in working order and plans to help care for his sister once she can be released from the facility that cares for her. Novak does an excellent job getting the reader invested in these characters; all I wanted throughout this book was for Dawson and Sadie to get together, be happy, and for everyone else to just leave them alone. However, that wouldn't make for a very long novel, so there is quite a bit of intense drama, especially with the ex-husband. It was a pretty fun ride, but I did find some sections a little repetitive and had to stretch my suspension of disbelief for some parts of the plot, which is what prevented this read from being a solid four stars.

The preferred approach to reading this book.
Still, I really like Novak's writing and I like that the theme of this series seems to be recovering from past traumas and still being able to find a happy ending. So despite my jaw dropping for the majority of this book and the totally misleading cover, I will definitely be reading every single other book in the Silver Springs series ASAP. Recommended if you like complicated romances featuring imperfect leads and, let's face it, a bit of juicy melodrama.

Saturday, April 21, 2018

Review: Hate to Want You by Alisha Rai

Title: Hate to Want You
Author: Alisha Rai
Genre: Contemporary Romance
Release Date: July 2017
Rating: 5/5 Glowing Stars

Why oh why did it take me so long to finally pick up this book?!?! I added it to my TBR when it came out, then I picked up a copy at The Ripped Bodice bookshop when Alisha Rai happened to be there and was kind enough to sign it for me and then I put it on my shelf reverently and haven't cracked it open since. But, I decided it was time and I'm so glad I did. After reading a few lack luster and overly tropey romances lately (reviews to come), Hate to Want You was like a breath of fresh air. 

So the premise is a juicy second chance situation between Olivia, or Livvy, Kane, who had a youthful romance with Nicholas Chandler that ended abruptly and resulted in meeting each other once a year, for the past nine years, for a one-night tryst on her birthday. Except this year, the tenth year, Nicholas, who lives for Livvy's annual text messages, doesn't hear from her. He also doesn't hear from her when she shows up back in the town where they both grew up and where he still lives, helping his family run their massively successful business-- a business which Livvy's family also used to run, until Nicholas' father cut her mother out of the partnership following a tragedy that killed Livvy's father and Nicholas' mother. There has been bad blood between the two families since, but Nicholas can't stop himself from showing back up in Livvy's life and the two become entangled once again.

The plot alone was enough to keep me reading, but beyond that, I love the characters that Rai has created. Every character has a past that impacts their present behavior, and everyone is recovering from something, some more successfully than others. Livvy and Nicholas both have histories that make communication almost impossible, and Rai touches upon both mental illness and the emotional work that women are expected to put into relationships in sensitive and intelligent ways. Both Livvy and Nicholas have a lot of growing up to do, including working on themselves before they are ready to bring each other into it. I found this incredibly realistic of actual relationships, so while Hate to Want You may feature a dramatic-sounding plot, the characters are so well-drawn that it was easy for me to become invested in their growth and their story.

Oh, and the love scenes are rated wided eyed blushing emoji for steaminess.

I would recommend this to anyone who likes complex characters in their contemporaries, plus teenage romances given a second chance. I already have book two in the series and book two was just released last month, so I know what I'll be reading for the next few weekends. I can't recommend this series enough!

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Review: Tell Me by Abigail Strom

Title: Tell Me
Author: Abigail Strom
Genre: Contemporary Romance
Release Date: October 2017
RITA Category: Contemporary Romance - Mid Length
Rating: 4/5 Stars

Heroine: Jane, a nerdy bookstore owner who hasn't dated in awhile and spends most of her time working, reading, and working on her secret novel. Hero: Caleb, a tough, outdoorsy type who is also her sister's best friend and business partner, and crazy handsome. Um, yes to this all of this! I went into this book not knowing much about the set-up, but was instantly drawn into the story. Jane is shy yet sarcastic and doesn't have a ton of dating experience, and thinks she meets the perfect man until she finds out she's not his idea of a perfect woman. Meanwhile, Caleb hates staying in one place and has a hard time finding a reason to commit to one woman (or city, or country) for an extended period of time. Still, the fact that Caleb works with Jane's beautiful, adventurous sister means they get thrown together and, though their interests clash, they find (to their surprise) that they have great chemistry together. All of this taking place largely in a bookstore only added to how much this book spoke to me.

However, I went into Tell Me without knowing much about the plot, so I was not prepared for the sudden shift in tone about halfway through the story. This was in the description, so not a spoiler, but I hardly ever read the descriptions before I start a book, because I like to be surprised. Suddenly the plot totally changed, and it was a little jarring to go from cutesy romance to tragedy and grief. However, I really enjoyed Strom's writing style and I was already super invested in Jane and Caleb, so I powered through the sad bits and I'm glad I did. The shift in plot definitely contributed to the growth of the main characters, and I really liked that the length of time it took for them to (finally!) get together was realistically long and that they didn't fall in love over night. Even the side characters had inner lives and personal growth, which I appreciated.

I would definitely recommend this book to readers who like quirky heroines, opposites-attract romances, and who don't mind a bit of tragedy combined with their romance. 

Saturday, April 14, 2018

Review: Between the Devil and the Duke by Kelly Bowen

Title: Between the Devil and the Duke
Author: Kelly Bowen
Genre: Historical Romance
Release Date: January 2017
RITA Category: Historical Romance - Long
Rating: 4/5 stars

This was my first Kelly Bowen historical, and I was pleasantly surprised! I try not to read too much about a book's plot before picking it up, and I was immediately drawn into the story of Angelique Archer, a noble lady whose family has fallen on extremely hard times, forcing her to use her quick mind to win card games and support the family with her gambling winnings. Angelique loves math and focuses on ensuring her family's home isn't lost and that her younger brother's can continue their education. I immediately liked her, and that she was smart, capable, and understood how she struggled with asking for help, as it meant that she had to admit that she was in trouble. I also liked the hero, Alexander Lavoie, the owner of the club where Angelique plays, who is impressed by her skills with cards and wants to hire her as the first dealer for his club. His offer could solve her problems, as she would have a steady income. However, as a lady she is hesitant to accept a job, and her instant attraction to Lavoie only complicates matters. 

I loved the chemistry between Alexander and Angelique, and romances where at least one character is a commoner is kind of my catnip, so I loved that this book didn't have the typical duke hero, despite the title. I became pretty invested in the characters, both good and bad; I literally screamed whenever Angelique's loser brother would squander their money or do something stupid, and the twist at the end of the book had me gasping. It was a fun, engrossing read that featured a few elements of intrigue that I thought made it a bit more exciting that a typical historical romance. There is definitely a mystery element to the story, thanks to cameos from some of the characters from the previous books in this series, which I now have to go back and read because I have to find out how those characters ended up together.

Between the Devil and the Duke is a good read if you want something different than the more traditional historical romance. The writing is snappy, the characters are well developed, and the romance itself is pretty steamy. Alexander is the type of hero that appeals to me; he's kind of a bad boy, but not really, and he's looking for a woman to be his equal rather than a damsel in distress. If you're looking for a quick-paced historical romance that has a nice mystery woven into the romance, I would definitely recommend this book!

Thursday, April 5, 2018

Reading Diversely in Romance

In my last post, I talked about attempting to read all of the 2018 RITA nominees, and to be honest it did stick out to me that this was probably the biggest swathe of white authors I've ever attempted to read in my life. While there are a few authors of color on the list, the absence of black authors was definitely striking. RWA addressed this in a blog post about needing to do better, which has sparked an inspiring (and, at times, enraging) discussion on Twitter amongst romance readers, writers, and booksellers; discussion is 100% necessary for change, and I thought I would be remiss to not mention all of this going on while also posting reviews of the RITA nominees as I read them.

As someone who is not 100% white (I'm half white, half Filipina), I already try to read diversely because I don't like reading about straight white people all of the time. I get incredibly excited when a heroine is Asian or if an author is Filipina, and I love supporting other authors of color besides those who write about characters who reflect my culture and heritage. That's because I just want to read good books, and often good books are written by authors of color and perspectives that are underrepresented in traditional publishing. So for every RITA nominee written by a white author, I'll be reading another romance book by an author of color. I have a ton on my TBR, so this will give me the excuse to work my way through them, and I'll be reviewing them alongside the RITA nominees. My hope is that next year the list of nominees will be more representative of the diversity of romance authors that are writing and being widely read and loved by romance readers. Until then, I think it's essential to keep discussing, keep dialog going, and to keep reading good books, books that happen to be written by black women.

How do you discover authors you love who may not be as widely promoted as most mainstream white authors whose covers feature white models? Are you more likely to use your purchasing power on books written by authors whose work is often pushed to the side in award nominations? I know that I often do; if an author that I know is excellent isn't being recognized by mainstream organizations, I make an effort to buy their books, pre-order their books, and promote them online. I'm also more likely to purchase them for my library; although I don't select our adult romances, I do get to purchase young adult, and contemporary romance is hugely popular amongst the teens at my library, so I'm always making an effort to purchase YA romance written by black authors and authors of color or LGBTQ authors because...dun dun DUN! Teens love reading them! Anyway, I don't know how this will all pan out in regards to the RITAs and the nomination process moving forward, but if there is a positive it's that the bubbles of many are bursting and hopefully that will lead to progress.

We shall see.